City PTA council is shut down

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland PTA has stripped the Baltimore City Council of PTAs of its authority to operate, amid concerns that the group's president is using his post as a platform to express personal criticism of city schools chief Andres Alonso.

State PTA officials said the city group has been operating without two of the three required officers, a secretary and a treasurer. They are concerned that the president of the city's PTA council, Eric White, has been promoting his own views at forums where he's speaking in his official capacity.

The group's charter requires that officers publicly present the consensus of the organization.

In addition, the city's council could not produce copies of its meeting minutes and its budget for the Maryland PTA.

While the local organization is inactive, PTAs at individual city schools will still receive support services from the statewide group.

White denied yesterday that the organization has been put on inactive status, despite a Maryland PTA letter sent this week saying that the group must "cease and desist" using the PTA name.

"The only thing that we've been told we need to fix is to elect and appoint a treasurer and a secretary," he said.

He said that the group is in the process of electing the officers as required and that that's the problem outlined in the letter. Debbie Ritchie, Maryland PTA president, disagreed, saying, "I think it's pretty clear what the letter says."

The city's PTA council had been on probation for two years before the statewide PTA's executive committee voted this month to make it inactive.

The city's PTA council is meant to provide training to school PTAs. Some school PTAs in the city have complained that White is charging them dues although school chapters are not required to belong to the citywide council.

Ritchie said school PTAs must belong to the state and national PTAs but may choose whether to join the citywide council. White steadfastly maintains that all 51 PTAs in the city are required to join and pay dues.

In recent months, White has become an outspoken, if unconventional, critic of the Alonso administration.

While Alonso has met multiple times in the past year with other parent groups in the city, such as the Parent and Community Advisory Board and the Baltimore Education Network, he was never invited to a PTA council meeting or event.

On May 19, White called in to a WEAA-FM radio program where host Marc Steiner was interviewing Alonso. Steiner identified the caller repeatedly as "Amos," and White never corrected him.

White said on the air that he wanted to present the CEO with a midterm progress report.

He gave Alonso an F for his revisions of the system's organizational chart (he said it doesn't include parents and community), a B-plus for frequency of school visits, a D in preparing and presenting the annual budget, a D for evaluating instruction, and a D-plus for professional development at the central office.

Alonso asked where the progress report came from and who participated in the grading.

"I'm grateful that I'm getting a B-plus for frequency of school visitation," said the CEO, who has visited 150 of the city's 192 schools during his first year on the job and attended dozens of PTA meetings.

"I would rather get an A because I don't think anybody's ever done what I've done in terms of visitation, but you know? Whoever wants to give me a grade, then that's great. I give grades all the time, so I think that's wonderful. Thank you, Eric, and what can I tell you?"

White said yesterday that he didn't feel the need to correct Steiner about his name.

"It wasn't important," he said. "I still got to say what I needed to say, and Dr. Alonso acknowledged who I was." He said he surveyed PTA members to come up with the grades but could not remember how many people participated.

At a school board meeting last week, White took a stand against the system's new parent engagement initiative, a position that conflicted with at least five other PTA council members.

He blasted a proposal, later approved by the board, to contract with community-based organizations to get parents more involved in schools. He called the components of the initiative "fabrications" and said the system should stick to its current parent engagement policy.

White was followed at the microphone by Dennis Moulden, chairman of the system's Parent and Community Advisory Board. On behalf of the PCAB, Moulden spoke in favor of contracting with community organizations. Five advisory board members are also on the PTA council, including Moulden, who is technically still the PTA's vice president of leadership. He said he stopped attending the council's meetings because they were not scheduled in advance and agendas were not provided.

Later in the board meeting, leaders of the Baltimore Education Network - a group to which several school PTA presidents belong - came out in support of the parent engagement initiative. Officials from the Alonso administration said they developed the initiative in response to conversations with PTA presidents at the network's meetings.

Still, White said he and his first vice president, LaV'ernee Curley, are representing the membership's views. (Curley accompanied White when he gave his comments at the school board meeting.) "People can talk and they'll say whatever, but whatever you hear from me or my vice president are basically the views of our membership," he said.

Asked about the organization's failure to produce minutes and a budget for the Maryland PTA, White said, "Any information that they've requested from us, if they don't have it, they're being provided it."

Baltimore isn't the first jurisdiction where the Maryland PTA has made a local PTA council inactive. The statewide group has taken the action against the Council of Prince George's County PTAs twice in the past eight years - in 2000, amid allegations of financial improprieties, and again last year. PTA councils in Washington and Charles counties are also inactive.

The state organization is working with parents in Worcester and Kent counties to revive PTA councils after periods of inactivity. Parents from inactive PTA councils can work with the Maryland PTA to fix the problems of their organizations, or the Maryland PTA can revoke their charters.

The problems with the Baltimore council started before White became its president in January.

In November 2006, Mary Jo Neil, then the president of the Maryland PTA, wrote a letter to White's predecessor, Michael Hamilton. During the 2005-2006 academic year, Neil wrote, PTAs in Baltimore lost 31 percent of their membership, and only about a fifth of the city's schools - 40 of them - had active PTA chapters.

Neil also wrote that no one from the city's council had attended a Maryland PTA board of directors meeting in a year. Meanwhile, the local council was trying to set up new PTA chapters without the proper training.

"Only those trained in the new procedures are allowed to establish new units throughout the state," Neil wrote. "Therefore, the board needs to stop establishing new units until someone from your council receives the proper training."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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